A Firing Offence is the 1992 first novel of George Pelecanos, later to become (relatively) well known as a scriptwriter for The Wire. It forms the first of his three part Nick Stefanos series, a trio of novels dealing with the exploits of (apparently fairly autobiographical in terms of character) D.C. based private detective Nick Stefanos.
After finishing the Stefanos series, Pelecanos went on to write his “D.C. Quartet”, an apparently much more ambitious and accomplished series of novels. It is not, therefore, the Nick Stefanos novels for which Pelecanos is now best known, they rather represent him finding his voice as a writer. That said, while it’s fair to say A Firing Offense isn’t terribly ambitious in scope it is a solid and enjoyable work of crime fiction and having read it I do intend to read the other two in the Nick Stefanos series before moving on to the D.C. Quartet and his other works.
So, enough of what it’s not. What is it? A Firing Offense is the story of how Nick Stefanos, a bored Advertising Director for Nutty Nathan’s chain of consumer electronics stores, agrees to help find a missing employee – a 19 year old kid who Nick briefly knew and who reminded him of his own pre-corporate self. Along the way, in fine hardboiled tradition, Nick gets beaten up, beats someone up, gets in a firefight and generally asks a lot of questions of a lot of people, some of whom aren’t too happy about answering. In terms of structure, it’s very much in the Chandler/Hammett vein, Nick asks around, puts two and two together, and knows he’s on the right track because people beat him up for being on it.
Where A Firing Offense is unusual however, is in its pacing and in its portrayal of the world of work – in particular the worlds of crummy office jobs and of working a salesfloor. This is a 216 page novel, for about the first hundred of those pages Nick is pulling down his job at Nutty Nathan’s and his enquiries into the missing boy are very much a sideline, we therefore spend a great deal of time seeing what it’s like to be an advertising director. In order to free up time to look for the kid Nick goes to work out of a local branch outlet, and so we see what it’s like to work a sales floor. Almost half the book then is not so much Nick running after bad guys, as Nick drinking too much and putting in a mediocre performance at a mediocre job, while his friends and colleagues mostly do likewise.
Generally, fiction deals poorly with the world of work, I’m not sure why, perhaps few authors have experienced it and those who did hated it, after all had they loved it they wouldn’t have left to become authors. Here, however, we have overpromoted management, bored employees, people watching the clock until they can go home, the world of work in all its tedious drudgery. It’s a marvellous portrait, not least when Nick reaches the sales floor and we see the various ruses and scams the salesmen pull to ensure they get the plum customers (those looking for TVs or steroes rather than say radio alarms) and how they convince them not to buy the best TV for them but the ones with the highest commission for the salesman, then making some extra on top by selling unnecessary warranties and parts insurance.
Lloyd was still with his customer, an older woman who seemed to be edging away from him in fear. I walked over to McGinnes, who was scribbling seemingly unrelated letters and numbers onto the sales tags.
‘You remember the system?’ he asked, continuing his markings.
‘Refresh my memory.’
‘The first two letters in the row are meaningless. The next set of numbers is the commission amount, written backwards. The final letter is the spiff code [a sales bonus], if there is a spiff. A is five, B is ten, C is fifteen and so on. So, for example, the figure on this tag, XP5732B means twenty-three seventy-five commission with a ten dollar spiff. That way, you’re pitching the bait that doesn’t pay dick, you look right beside it on the next model, you see what you get if you make the step, in black and white. ‘ He stepped back to admire his handiwork.
‘Just in case one of these customers asks, so we keep our stories straight, what do we tell them the numbers mean?’
‘Inventory control codes, he said with a shrug.
Shortly before this little exchange, we spend over a page and a half watching McGinnes, the best salesman on the floor, convince an old man who’s come in to buy the advertised special offer to upgrade to a much more expensive set, in part on the basis that it has a high IS (internal spiff, the customer obviously having no idea what that means) and by such tricks as putting a lousy aerial on the set the customer had originally intended to buy – all paired with a folksy patter and an ability to come from whatever part of the US the customer hails from. It’s a marvellous sequence, fun to read and really brings to life the sleazy ambience of the Nutty Nathan’s salesfloor.
The salesmen themselves are from the Glengarry Glen Ross school of charm, swearing heavily, drinking extraordinary amounts (including during the working day) and in the case of McGinnes taking copious quantities of drugs as well. It’s a vision of a sort of retail hell, a working environment so unbearable that only by mocking their customers and deadening their senses can they make it through the day. Competition for commissions is high, with the hapless Lloyd kept on primarily to deal with the low value items nobody else wants to touch, it’s a profoundly ruthless environment and Nutty Nathans becomes a sort of microcosm of the wider city of DC, a place drowning in drink and narcotics in which nobody is really clean.
As noted above, Pelecanos spends around 100 pages of the book, almost half, on Nick’s life at work and the people he knows there. During this half, pacing is carefully gradual, with Nick starting to get deeper into his investigation, but the bulk of his activity still centring around his normal life. All this comes, however, with undertones of menace because on page 2 we are told how the story will end: “with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.” That means, during this entire 100 pages of quotidiana we’re aware that by the end of the book people will have died in terrible violence, once we’re past the halfway mark we start to accelerate to that end, but it’s a measured acceleration and the drive from normal life to automatic weapon fire and painful death is always a controlled one (for the reader anyway, not so much for Nick).
Pelecanos then brings the world of work to life, and shows a real skill at pacing, where he also shows real skill is in his descriptions. Here we have Nick’s favourite lunch spot:
In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.
And here we have Nick, getting changed to go to head office rather than the sales office:
I finished shaving and undid my tie, switching from an Italian print to a wine and olive rep. I changed my side buckle shoes to a relatively more conservative pair of black oxfords that had thin steel plates wrapped around the outside of the toes. I put on a thrift shop Harris Tweed, secured the apartment, and drove to work.
Note the relatively spare, hardboiled, prose style there.
Generally, Pelecanos brings early 1990s D.C. to life, the drugs, the racial tensions. There is a palpable sense of place through the whole novel, and given that to me a sense of place is key to writing good crime fiction, it’s an important element of the novel’s success.
Not everything, however, is quite so successful. The characters are incredibly hard drinking, Nick clearly has an alcohol problem, not yet fully developed but plainly there, that’s fine but so does almost everyone else and it’s fair to say that almost every character of note in the novel spends their time drunk, stoned or both. That may be a fair reflection of early 1990s D.C., but I wasn’t wholly persuaded. Worse though is that’s a symptom of a problem with Nick as a character. Generally, he is convincing, he is part of a Greek community that feels real (as it should, given Stefanos himself comes from such), he feels as if he has a life beyond the book, but he is also portrayed as being a bit cool and for me that didn’t wholly work.
Nick has great taste in music (I actually dug out my old Elvis Costello discs on finishing the book, apparently a common reaction to it), he can hold his own in rough clubs aimed at men ten years his junior, he is popular with women, the two times he gets in fights knowing that’s what’s about to happen he basically kicks ass, he is a fine shot too. Basically, he’s a bit badass.
Now, in part that’s all good hardboiled stuff. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op can all handle themselves in a fight, Spade and Marlowe are both handsome fellows and well dressed. Pelecanos is writing a hardboiled crime novel. It’s just that Spade, Marlowe and the Continental Op were professional PIs, Nick is an advertising director slightly past his glory days. He’s cool, but he’s cool in a slightly sad way for a character the wrong side of 30.
In fairness, that slightly pathetic quality is in part intentional. Nick’s ex-wife left him because he wasn’t accepting adult responsibilities, an element made interestingly ambiguous given that it’s clear she’s accepted them herself but that in doing so she’s lost along the way an essential part of her own character. Pelecanos gives the impression that much of Nick’s motivation in looking for the missing kid is seeking his own youth which is slipping away from him. The trouble is, those elements of ambiguity, of whether accepting adult responsibilities is simply a form of surrender, are slightly undercut by Nick later on taking down a bad guy in brutally effective fashion. It’s also undercut slightly by Nick’s success with women. Put another way, Nick’s traits that come from his status as hardboiled hero sit slightly oddly with Nick’s traits which come from him being an ageing scenester who’s sold out and isn’t sure he got anything worthwhile in return.
Still, those criticisms aside, it’s a well written and well paced crime novel. It’s not more than that, but that’s nothing to be sniffed at, it’s an enjoyable read and Nick is ultimately an interesting character to travel some of America’s backways with. As I said at the outset, I intend to read the sequel, and I look forward eventually to reading George Pelecanos’s more ambitious works, the ones he wrote when he finally felt free not to follow a hardboiled template that at times seems to work against what he’s trying here to achieve.